Bulldogs ‘super excited’ to get back to playing football

5 things to watch in preseason camp
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart directs players during a Bulldogs' practice on the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart directs players during a Bulldogs' practice on the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens.

Georgia will finally start preseason football camp Monday. The question now becomes, can they finish it?

The Bulldogs and the SEC have chosen to press on while the coronavirus pandemic has forced many other FBS conferences to shutter football and other fall sports for the year. For now, Georgia’s plan is to practice 25 times over the next 40 days and be ready for the start of a delayed, conference-only schedule by Sept. 26.

“We’re super excited to be back and to be back working at the office,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said in a video-conference call with reporters Sunday evening. “What a crazy time it’s been, the last five months.”

The SEC will reveal the Week 1 opponents Monday at 3 p.m. during a segment of the Paul Finebaum Show on the SEC Network, then unveil the league’s entire schedule at 7 p.m. Georgia, which entered the preseason ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll, already knows it will play Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State in addition to its six co-members of the SEC Eastern Division.

But the greater uncertainty is whether anybody will play at all. More than 30,000 UGA students are in the process moving onto campus this week, and many arrived over the weekend. The state of Georgia has approved face-to-face instruction for fall semester, which begins Friday. Students are required to wear masks in all campus facilities.

Georgia players will have to attend those classes as well. So, behind-the-scenes administrators are fearing the worst but hoping for the best. Smart is trying to keep a practical approach.

“I put faith, trust and confidence into Greg Sankey,” Smart said of the SEC’s commissioner. “He has done a tremendous job. First thing he did is form a medical group to represent our 14 universities and they started dealing with issues that some media is just now coming to know about and they were dealing with them April 1. … So they’ve had a plan for everything that has come up and done of very good job of adjusting on the run. They’re the experts, so my faith trust and confidence goes with them.”

As it is, the Bulldogs have never really stopped preparing for the 2020 season. They lost spring practice when the pandemic first hit in March and the campus was vacated. But the entire football team returned to campus on June 8 and has been engaging in some form of strength and conditioning training, meetings or on-field practice ever since.

Starting this week, they will gradually progress from conducting workouts in helmets, then shoulder pads and eventually full pads. Altered NCAA rules require that they practice no more than 20 hours a week and no more than five days.

Following are five of the top issues Georgia must address to be ready for the season that may or may not come:

The offense: Like, all of it

It has been a long time since Georgia faced more of a total overhaul on offense than the one it will encounter. Technically, the Bulldogs will be replacing nine starters from its 2019 offense, including quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D’Andre Swift, four offensive linemen, two tight ends and two wide receivers. Add to that that the offense will be under the direction of new offensive coordinator in Todd Monken, and it’s hard to think of an FBS team with more unknowns on offense than Georgia.

But it might not be all bad. While the Bulldogs managed to post an 11-3 record, they were as ineffective on offensive as they’ve been since 2015 and probably were due for some major retooling.

It’s probably not ideal that Georgia is attempting to undergo this change while also rebuilding on the offensive line. Priority one in camp will be establishing a first five, and that will start with finding replacements for All-America left tackle Andrew Thomas and right tackle Isaiah Wilson. The thought is junior guard Jamaree Salyer will be given a long look at both positions, but the turnover wasn’t unexpected and Georgia has recruited at a high level seeking replacements. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs aren’t devoid of experience besides. Guards Justin Shaffer and Ben Cleveland have each logged significant time on the field as both starters and backups.

The same goes with the skill positions. Georgia has some great building blocks in redshirt sophomore running back Zamir White and sophomore wideout George Pickens, among others. Overall, the talent base that has sustained the Bulldogs throughout the Smart Era remains intact and the competition aspect of them battling for playing time assures it should be focused and motivated group.

Still, there’s a lot of newness on that side of the ball.

Quarterback competition

It was assumed when Jamie Newman — considered the top graduate transfer prospect in the offseason — landed with the Bulldogs, that the quarterback job would be his to lose. And that may indeed be the case. But then J.T. Daniels showed up from California over the summer and it became clear Smart either wasn’t so sure himself at least wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.

Daniels, a redshirt sophomore, started his freshman season at Southern Cal and was set to start his sophomore season, too, when he went down with a knee injury at the end of a stellar first half of the season-opener against Fresno State. But Daniels lost his starting position during his rehab and wasn’t assured of any playing time in 2020.

That turned out to be prescient move as the Pac-12, like the Big Ten, has shelved its football season. Meanwhile, Daniels has been with the team for nearly two months now and is cleared now to play. Meanwhile, both him and Newman will have to stave off the advances of three other quarterbacks in junior Stetson Bennett, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis and freshman Carson Beck.

There will be no relaxing in Georgia’s quarterback room.

“It’s a competitive room,” Smart said. “Those guys have been in competitive rooms before. Jamie had to compete at Wake Forest. J.T. had to compete where he was. … Competition is part of the process. But for a quarterback, more than anything, you want to be coached and developed. Part of that is practicing and getting reps. Fortunately we’ve got really good depth here at the University of Georgia.”

Quarterback Jamie Newman transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia.

Credit: UGA Sports

icon to expand image

Credit: UGA Sports

The Monken factor

The theories about the effect of Monken’s presence on Georgia’s offense run the gamut of total redo to subtle retrofits. Monken comes to the Bulldogs from the Cleveland Browns, where he wasn’t able to fully unleash the explosive offensive style he developed a reputation for during stops at Tampa Bay and, before that, at Southern Miss and Oklahoma State.

The good news for Georgia is, while they haven’t been able to get onto the field together a lot so far, the pandemic offered the offense an extended time to get to know Monken and whatever wrinkles he’s expected to bring to the existing playbook.

Smart, for one, is not hinting about what it might look like.

“I believe in doing whatever you have to do to win,” Smart said. “… I want whatever’s going to give us the best chance for success on the field. We want to be able to score points because it takes that to win games.”

Special teams

There is a bit of a rebuild to be done in the area of special teams as well. Not only must the Bulldogs replace Rodrigo Blankenship, one of the most prolific place-kickers in the history of the school, but they’re also doing so under a new and unproven special teams coordinator.

Almost forgotten through the length and breadth of the unrelenting pandemic is Georgia hired Scott Cochran away from Alabama back in February. Cochran developed a reputation as one of the premier strength and conditioning directors and supreme motivators in all of college football while helping the Crimson Tide secure five national championships under coach Nick Saban. But Cochran has never been an on-field assistant coach during a 20-year career in college athletics.

Now at Georgia, he’ll first have to oversee a competition between Jake Camarda, who already holds down a job as the Bulldogs’ punter, and heralded freshman signee Jared Zirkel, for the right to succeed Blankenship. Then it will be about finding ways to improve a returns game that was uncharacteristically pedestrian last season.

Georgia punter Jake Camarda (90) is on the Ray Guy Award (best punter in college football) watch list.

Credit: UGA Sports

icon to expand image

Credit: UGA Sports

Staying defensive

Without question, Georgia’s defense is what distinguishes it as a championship-caliber team. The Bulldogs led the nation in scoring (12.6 ppg) and rushing (74.6 ypg) last year and lost only one full-time starter from that group in safety J.R. Reed. But the unit’s overall strength was in sheer numbers, as in well more than 30 players playing 100 snaps or more during the season.

What is going to be fascinating to watch during camp is what players emerge as starters and leaders on that side of the ball. Linebacker, in particular, is position where distributing reps between a host of former 5-star prospects is going to be a weekly and daily challenge for defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith and Travon Walker will be battling for playing time against established veterans such as Channing Tindall, Azeez Ojulari and Walter Grant.

The bonus for the Bulldogs is no matter how those competitions play out, there’s not likely to downside. They’re all going to play.